After last week’s shocking revelation that “Ring Around the Rosies” was NOT about the Black Plague, I decided to look into other nursery rhymes to see what they were not about. For instance, “Jack and Jill,” as is commonly reported, is not about the execution of Louis XVI of France (“broke his crown”) and of Marie Antoinette some months later (“came tumbling after”). I know this because the rhyme was published 30 years before Louis got guillotined. Plus, the original rhyme was not about Jack and Jill, but about Jack and Gill, two boys! “Rub-A-Dub-Dub” sounds innocent enough until you start to think about it. But its real meaning is even creepier. Apparently, this wonderful rhyme that we all recited while giving our kids a bath is actually a song about upper-class tradespeople (the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker) at a town fair getting caught peeking into the woman’s bath. Yep, these well-to-do and well-respected men were all lecherous peeping toms. Now, whenever you think of this rhyme, no matter how many baths you take, you’ll still feel dirty. “Here We Go ’Round the Mulberry Bush” is a fun tune. I have images of kids dancing around this little tree, having the time of their lives. However, according to historians, that’s not the picture we should have. The song originated in a British prison for women where female prisoners were forced to exercise each day by walking around the mulberry tree in the yard with guards peering down upon them. I guess mulberry is the old “orange is the new black.” “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” was one of Jo’s favorites growing up, because of the cute gardening allusions. However, research indicates that this rhyme has nothing to do with gardening. Instead, Mary refers to Queen Mary I of England (aka, “Bloody Mary”) whose contrariness was seen in her murderous rage. Her garden (the cemetery) grew by killing protestants who opposed her edicts. Silver bells and cockle shells may sound sweet, but were actually instruments of torture (thumb-screws and you don’t really want to know). And the maids in a row? The “maiden” was a precursor to the guillotine. And we used to sing all of these songs to our kids! So, here’s my advice: just say, “no,” to nursery rhymes! Even if they don’t have some dark and disturbing past, do we really want our kids hearing songs about chopping off the tails off of mice (and with a carving knife, no less!) or old men dying in their sleep (“couldn’t get up in the morning”) or spiders stealing a girl’s breakfast (poor little Miss Muffet)? No! Nursery rhymes are just plain evil! So, again heed my advice and just say, “no.”
The Corinthians should have said “no” to their little rhyme. Although it may be catchy, it was all sorts of trouble. Paul quotes it in 1 Corinthians 6:13–
“Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”
Now the tricky part, here, is that there are parts of this slogan with which Paul will agree. We see this in 1 Corinthians 8:8, for example, where Paul says: “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” Food is for the stomach. But there are also parts of this with which Paul disagrees vehemently. Yes, Paul says, all things being equal, the choice of what food we want to consume CAN BE a totally neutral moral choice, BUT that is not true about everything that seems to only have a momentary purpose, a fleeting action.
I know this is complicated, so let me give you an example. Paul would say the decision to have regular potatoes or sweet potatoes for dinner does not have to be a moral issue (I would insert a joke about a potato here, but I wouldn’t know where to starch). In Paul’s thinking, you are absolutely free, all things being equal, to eat whichever potato you want. However, that changes quickly if things are not exactly equal, for instance, if our potato was stolen or if we had, in some way, dealt underhandedly and unfairly with the farmer or if the potato was grown using slave labor. But, generally speaking, what we choose to eat does not imply a moral issue.
However, the Corinthians in this slogan were not so much interested in “what’s for dinner,” but in other appetites. And we see this in Paul’s retort to their slogan in verses 13 where he gives a slogan of his own. There we read:
“The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
Paul suggests “one of these things is not like the other” and lists off three things: a potato, a sweet potato, and sex with a prostitute. I think I know the answer; and I would bet you do, too. Paul also knew the correct answer, but the Corinthians saw all three as having the same moral relevance. After all, “God will destroy them.” The Corinthians would argue that if something is temporary, if it has no shelf life, it has no moral impact. Paul would argue that in many (some?) situations, this is true, but it is not always true. If something has eternal consequences, if something lasts beyond this present world, then it must be seriously considered and evaluated in light of its morality. However, if it is transient, it often carries no moral overtones. Now, the Corinthians are arguing that sex is temporary. It is an appetite that can be satisfied today and be forgotten tomorrow just like what we had for dinner. Paul would say, however, that all aspects of our relationships are eternal; and therefore, sex is not a fleeting act with no moral implications.
How does Paul come to that decision? He gives us four reasons. First (verse 14), the body is not temporary since God will resurrect our bodies making them eternal. This was a shock to the Corinthians (and to many of us) who only thought the soul was eternal. No, Paul says, our bodies are eternal because they will be resurrected, too; and therefore, what we do with them now counts forever! Second (verse 15), Paul says our bodies are members of Christ himself; and therefore, everything we do with them is significant. You can’t just take what is Christ’s and unite it with a prostitute (if you wouldn’t even think about borrowing someone’s car and painting flames on it, how could you even consider doing what the Corinthians were suggesting here?). Third, (verse 16), Paul will argue that since sex is a picture of marriage in the Bible and marriage is a picture of oneness and since marriage is forever (“What God has joined together, let no one separate”), then we can’t just have sex with anyone without disrupting the whole story, an outcome that has all sorts of moral implications. (Interesting tidbit: In Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet, he shares that in his college classes, he often will say, “There is no such thing as premarital sex in the Bible since intercourse constitutes the sexual union that we call marriage.” He admits that this statement is a bit overcooked, but it makes the point rather vividly!). And last (verse 17), since we are united with the Lord in Spirit, we can’t unite with Tom, Dick or Mary and think it doesn’t matter. Being united to the Lord should dictate how we should enter in to all of our other relationships.
Bottom line: Some temporal things have no moral consequence (to have potatoes for dinner), but other fleeting things do. And if something is eternal, it always has ethical ramifications. In other words, what we do matters.
So, what does all of this say about the exercise of our rights? One reminder and two new things.
First, our point from last week, if the exercising of our rights is set in a temporary and fleeting context, go ahead. If a waitress brings you tea instead of the coffee you ordered, you are free to exercise your rights and make sure you get the coffee you need. BUT in the exercise of your rights, you must be kind and gracious and patient and gentle.
Second, if the exercise of your rights has eternal significance attached to it, then you must approach things very seriously because right now does count forever. BUT even small, fleeting, innocuous-looking things may have eternity stamped all over them. What chocolate candy I choose to eat seems like a classic example of an amoral decision, but not if the candy was made by enslaved children. Which shirt I buy seems to be an innocuous choice, unless it was made in a sweatshop. Yes, I have the right to do what I want if the issue is temporary and fleeting, but I do not have the right to do harm to others. Let me rephrase that great Bruce Barton quote: Sometimes when I consider what tremendous and far-ranging consequences are attached to temporal and fleeting issues, I am tempted to think that there are no temporal and fleeting issues. Amen and amen.
Third, oftentimes, if we are demanding our rights, it is a character issue (or a character-shaping issue); and character counts forever. If we can exercise our rights without it affecting our character, (who we are or how we act), then we have a certain amount of latitude to do as we please. However, if it does have the potential either to express a negative character trait or form a negative trait, then we must refrain from doing it. Why? Because character matters. Why? Because our character is eternal. It speaks to who we are. I don’t know about you, but when I demand my rights, I find it feeds everything bad in me, my arrogance, my self-righteousness, my self-importance and my refusal to honor and value you. In other words, demanding my rights shapes my character in all the wrong ways. See, I just can’t do what I want. I’ve been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). I have been united with the Lord (6:15, 17). And the Holy Spirit resides in me (1 Cor. 6:19). In every decision, we must ask if we are doing this for ourselves or for others, if such a decision further strengthens our idolatry or if it strips down our idols’ tight grip on us, and if our choices reflect our will or the will of our Father.
Worse, what I do now creates who I will be for all eternity. CS Lewis in his masterpiece, The Great Divorce, speaks to this issue brilliantly; but it is too long to quote, so let me paraphrase. Everyone demands their rights every now and again, but it is distinct from them. They may even criticize the foul mood they were in when they pushed for their rights. But if we keep doing it, keep demanding our rights, and never relent from demanding them, there may come a day when we are no longer able to see it or to stop doing it. Then there will be no more US to see it. There will only be the demanding itself going on forever like a machine. You will no longer be someone who demands their rights; you will just be an incessant demand. (The Great Divorce, chapter 9). Even now, I know people who started off years ago, complaining and angry about everything. Now, these same people are nothing more than an angry complaint themselves. Like the character of Gregor in Kafka’s, “The Metamorphosis,” they were simply transformed over time into something disgusting and ugly. See, what we do now matters. What we do now is shaping who we will be for all eternity.
Sometimes, a nursery rhyme is simply a child’s game. Sometimes, however, it speaks of something significant; and oftentimes, it speaks of something awful. Sometimes, things are temporary and fleeting. Make your choice and enjoy. But sometimes, those fleeting moments are laced with eternal consequences, because of the way we are treating other people or engaged in attitudes that reflect or shape our character. And then sometimes, things are clearly eternal and must be handled carefully and seriously. In short, there is a lot to think about in every decision, especially if we are in a position where we are tempted to demand our rights and to go out of our way to make our voice heard. It is a lot to think about; but we are God’s kingdom people, and we must live in light of God’s coming kingdom in everything we do.
Oh, I just remembered two potato jokes: First, why did the potato go out with a prune? Because he couldn’t find a date. And second, why did the potato cross the road? Because he saw a fork up ahead. If you ever suspected that humor is also eternal, now you know! Yes! Plus, it is a great character builder.